Rembrandt Lighting? Um, No.

Phoenix-based shooter Blair Bunting must have been asleep the day they taught the classic portrait lighting styles in school. Either that, or he skipped right past "Rembrandt" and went straight to "Badass."

Bunting is part of a movement of a high-def lighting style that is especially well-suited to subjects like athletes, rock musicians, MMA fighters, assassins, orcs, etc.

Keep reading for full lighting diagrams (hint: lots of sources) and some Q&A on Bunting's techniques and lighting philosophy.

The first thing to consider when sculpting light like this is to leave some shadow. The light's edge is defined by shadow, which is what creates the form. The other thing to remember is that the intensity of the surface of the subject also is revealed by specular highlights. And each light source is going to create a specular of some kind.

Placing lights where you want them -- and keeping them away from where you do not -- is the balance you need to strike to make this kind of photo.

To get an idea of what it took to create this look for a portrait of Arizona State running back Keegan Herring, check out the top-view and front-view lighting diagrams, below.

Top View

Looking at this angle, you can see that Herring is lit from just about everywhere except the lens axis. This is what makes the lights define him in such a cool way. Again, you have to leave shadow to get form.

But each of those lights his the subject on a glancing blow, with respect to the lens axis, and that is what creates the cool highlights.

Lotta lights? Yeah. It's pretty much walking into a camera store and asking for two of everything they have. But it is a look. And it's a look that will make a college sports information department do the Happy Dance and call you back year after year. Just like they do for Bunting.

Front View

To look at the top view, you'd think Herring is inside of a cylinder of light, but that does not take into account the varying heights of the light sources, which in this way creates yet more sculpting with shadows.

From this angle, you should really start to see the light coming together.

Height-wise, the strips and small square boxes are doing the heavy lifting, lighting the body and face. But it is the beauty dish (don't call it that in front of Herring) grids and reflector that create the edge everywhere.

"Yeah, yeah," you say. "It's really all done in post. Ten minutes of shooting and two days of Photoshop."

Yeah, well, maybe not so much as you think. In fact, Blair was kind enough to release a raw photo, seen at left, which shows you just how close he gets with light.

From there, it's pretty quick and basic in Photoshop. It always helps to start with the best file possible. And the closer you can get in the camera, they better. That said, Bunting notes that he tends to think of light as expression, rather than as a process. He said he uses light to create opinion and emotion.

He gets the "what light is best?" question a lot, to which he responds:

"Buy what you can afford. The reasoning behind my answer is that I am of firm belief that practice is more significant than any brand name. I have been fortunate enough to use numerous different brands of lights, hot and cold, small and large."

As for tools vs. vision, he says, "I fall into a rhythm where my tools give way to my vision and my eye produces what my mind wants to see. Be it Profotos, Alien Bees, or SB-800's, one can create with all of these."

He particularly worries for the beginning photographer who finds his or her approach inferior to a photographer using more expensive lights. He feels that mindset is a dangerous mental handicap, and wishes it on no one.

Where does he get his inspiration? You might be surprised:

"Often times I find that the music I listen to can determine my lighting approach more than anything else. With my eyes closed, a glass of wine, and a powerful score (or any song that drives you within for that matter) I sit and think of light not as this invisible substance, but a tangible entity."

He goes on:

"Mentally I observe it like wind and smoke and try to imagine how it should form my subject. This is particularly practical when shooting cars as many people hit a road block with the reflectivity of metal."

Bunting also thinks of light as water, using analogies of hard vs. soft, narrow vs. wide beams and hot vs. cold. It's an organic way of describing light that I had never considered, but it has me thinking.

He advises photographers to consider, and learn, the power of a single light source. Know what a single, silver umbrella can do for your subject, and to respect light.

Lest this all get too philosophical, I hit him up with some specific questions:

Q and A

1. The lighting design for the football player is killer. How did you evolve this particular lighting style? Were you influenced by video games? Movies? Other shooters?

Oddly enough, this one was music and visualizing for endless hours. I lived with my Ipod in and would skip lunches to plan (this shoot had 10 shots to be done in 2 hours). For this one in particular I listened to everything from the Gladiator theme (“The Battle” by Hans Zimmer) to death metal.

The idea was to make the scariest person imaginable. So the lighting was based off of discomfort, a lot of lights, a lot of speculars, a lot of chaos. The idea of the lighting came from the countless movies where you can barely see the person, rather an outline; in this case I wanted it carried a bit further with his eyes.

2. Do you find you get hired to do a certain look? Do you feel you still have creative freedom?

I have been especially fortunate in this area. It is often that I get booked by clients that have someone of a concept and want my style to carry it, which in turn lends a great deal of creative freedom my way. Other times I will be booked by a client that maybe wants a less moody image, but still wants my view brought into the shot, either way the freedom is there.

The downside is sometimes all I want to do is think about lighting and would give anything for a set in stone storyboard where I came in, followed directions, lit, shot and went home.

3. That's, um, a lot of light sources. Typically a shooter would not start out with an arsenal like that. What kind of approach were you using when you had fewer lights?

I am a huge fan of shooting one source, and often have usually with one silver umbrella. Another way I saw lighting (when using fewer sources) was making sure that the eye saw a comfortable single direction in the photo, and from there countering that source with a fill to keep the contrast ratio down.

4. Given that many watt-second deployed against a single player, how do you adapt that look to larger subjects -- say, an offensive line?

This is sometimes a task, in all honesty. The football player need a lot of light since the shot was done with a digital medium format system, which requires more than a 35mm.

I will usually try and bring larger packs (preference going to the Profoto D4 4800). However, there are just times when there are not enough lights and the budget isn’t open enough to bring in 20 or 30 heads. (DH note: 20 or 30?!?) In this case I improvise and try to visualize the scene with a single light source and take small steps building off that to a minimalist approach.

5. Is heavy post production an important part of this look? If so, how close do you get with the light and how much needs to be done in post?

In all reality I am not that savvy with Photoshop. Because of this lighting has to be perfect. I have seen guys take snapshots of cars and make them look like a studio shot. I respect this approach, but it’s just not mine and is dangerous if an AD is on set and wants to visualize a shot for placement. Much of the work I do looks extremely close to what is seen in the LCD on set with added contrast, polishing and sharpening. I have included the jpeg for the football player shot for reference as a file that has not seen Photoshop.

Blair posted a brief video vignette from other parts of this same shoot to YouTube:

Thanks much to Blair for giving us an inside look at both his lighting techniques and philosophy. To see more of Blair's work -- or to hire him -- visit his website.


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Blogger i.n.galbraith said...

you just dropped an orc reference.......take me to bed or lose me forever.

July 16, 2008 12:39 AM  
Blogger Daniel Han said...

holy crap load of great info.
This look is the kinda thing I was never able to emulate; now I think I can figure out how. (although I am limited to three lights, with DIY stuff, I might make it right)

Thanks Dave!

July 16, 2008 12:42 AM  
Anonymous Dan said...

Gotta love the closing shot of the "big boy's toy". It is the camera that makes the photographer after-all, right?

July 16, 2008 1:31 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

@ i.n.
usually* when the ladies use that line on me, my reply is, "Whatdaya mean 'or'???

* usually in this case means "if ever in my wildest dreams"

July 16, 2008 1:51 AM  
Blogger said...

I heart big softboxes!
Kudos on the diagrams.

July 16, 2008 2:30 AM  
Anonymous Ryland Haggis said...

I really dig Bunting's style -- he has a good range of exceptional images on his website.

As for the comment that he doesn't do that much with Photoshop, a significant number of his photos beg to differ.

I'm not against "helping" a photo in post, and I've definitely pushed a few too far beyond the realm of taste myself (and probably will again). That said, I can see in some of Bunting's work the telltale "supernaturally bright eyes", the "plasticized skin", as well as some really cool and creative uses of texture overlays and aging effects.

If it's not him, someone around his studio knows their way around a .PSD.

July 16, 2008 2:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Think we could do this with one SB24 if we got him to stand still long enough?

July 16, 2008 3:52 AM  
Anonymous Nato Tuke said...

Blair Bunting is fantastic. Thank you so much for all this info! Being a good ole photo student, little articles like this are gold.Well any type of photo secrets are gold ...

Also! If youre interested in looking at an interesting approach on a photo students struggle/perks and lifestyle, i just started exactly that on my blog. Check it out!

July 16, 2008 9:45 AM  
Anonymous Al Graham said...

Am I the only one to notice that the top view lighting diagram doesn't match the front view? The front view shows a single beauty dish while the top shows two medium softboxes. What's up?

July 16, 2008 9:50 AM  
Anonymous Eric said...

I am gonna need more lights. He really knows how to "sculpt" with light. Very interesting post that will need several reads.

I would like to see how similar of results people can attain with fewer light sources.

July 16, 2008 9:57 AM  
Anonymous Arun said...

Definitely like the intense look - another idea in my back pocket.
Thanks again for the post and the plethora of information.

July 16, 2008 10:14 AM  
Anonymous Brendan said...

Researching more... this guy is only 24 years old ( )

None the less great stuff!

Thanks as always Dave!


July 16, 2008 10:41 AM  
Blogger MK said...

I'm in agreement with Haggis. That's not a small amount of photoshop. *Insert obligatory "Not that there's anything wrong with that!" here!*

In fact, it may just be my untrained PS eye, but that "raw" second image has a certain "look" to it as well. And I mean beyond the truly killer lighting. Not sure though.

July 16, 2008 11:31 AM  
Blogger Michelle Jones, Photographer said...

Great article, thanks Dave. I like this light although it does remind me of good ole Dave hill, I don't know which did it first but I don't reckon it matters.

I guessed at three lights, not that many! I am personally thinking overkill, but if he's getting work, who cares?!

I have to agree, looking through his site, there is a lot of PS work involved. With 'luminglow' applications, textures, gritty '300' processing and even some reflection fakery with some of the car shots.

But again, who cares? The end result looks great and you simply can't fake lighting, however hard you try, a good ps tech can always tell what is and what isn't real, it just looses 'something'.

Hugs for now!

July 16, 2008 11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah. Those two diagrams don't match at all.

July 16, 2008 12:08 PM  
Anonymous Keith said...

Part of that look:

"The football player need a lot of light since the shot was done with a digital medium format system, which requires more than a 35mm."

Nice behind the scenes stuff, thanks.

July 16, 2008 12:15 PM  
Blogger Jacob said...

Again, DH, really glad to see these kinds of posts coming up again. Especially with the inclusion of a straight-from-camera file. It's really interesting to compare that with the finished product.

You get one extra DMD today cause you did a good job.

July 16, 2008 12:27 PM  
Blogger jimmyd said...

Lighting-wise, it's certainly not a "new" look altho it's very well executed. Believe it or not, this sort of lighting approach is used, often enough, in glamour lighting. Minimally, it takes 4 light sources, appropriately placed, modified and controlled, to effectively emulate it.

July 16, 2008 12:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm really getting tired of this look.

July 16, 2008 1:33 PM  
Anonymous Eric Baines said...

Well, Anonymous, when someone of your stature says that you are tired of a look, it carries a lot of weight. I think we have all been impressed by your recent work, Anonymous, and your pronouncing this trend as "over" will definitely send shock waves through the sports photography community.

Thanks for taking the time out of your busy shooting schedule to comment!

July 16, 2008 2:15 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

Would have been nice if we had gotten a "how would strobist have done this w/o a gazillion lights and modifiers?" section :-)

Anyone else notice that the guy used a black bowl on a softbox to make a pseudo ringlight?

July 16, 2008 3:21 PM  
Anonymous Joe A. said...

wow, great stuff - funny though, I just was introduced to another Arizona photographer that has a very similar technique, but I think there is more classic lighting here with Blair, than Mr. Joel Grimes... but take a look, very similar feel:

July 16, 2008 3:38 PM  
Blogger Sam Gillespie said...

Best post for a while. Thanks a lot big D.

July 16, 2008 3:57 PM  
Blogger Sam Gillespie said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

July 16, 2008 3:59 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy said...

lol @ eric baines. I'll never get tired of this look.

July 16, 2008 4:13 PM  
Blogger Patrick Smith said...

I could type 50 graphs on why I love it, but I'll leave it with a simple, "This is BA!"

July 16, 2008 4:27 PM  
Blogger David said...

I thought you'd like that one, Patrick. The Profotos are reaching out to your Visa card right now...

Oh, wait - you are a Sun intern! You have access to them in the studio!

July 16, 2008 5:05 PM  
Anonymous Jason Russell said...

I actually just saw this shot on PDN /Photoserve's portfolio of the month, and now it's Strobist!

Dave you have really out done yourself now. Great article, insanely good photographer... This is the stuff that makes this place so great


July 16, 2008 6:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just making that shot cost thousands of dollars in lights. Must be a cheaper way to achieve the look with reflectors. Nice, but too rich for me

July 16, 2008 6:11 PM  
Blogger silica said...

Blair Bunting does great work. I've seen his stuff on one of the photography forums, and he is fantastic.

Unfortunately, no one can make bicep bands look less stupid, however.

July 16, 2008 7:20 PM  
Anonymous Scott Fischbein said...

Great stuff. Where's the beauty dish in the top-down diagram? They don't seem to match up - is it directly overhead and just not labeled as such ? Anyway, very cool...

July 16, 2008 9:07 PM  
Blogger Jason Gwin said...

Just wanted to point out that has a video on it about "lighting in a bag". It is right up your ally as far as the portability and affordability of the small strobes you teach. Just thought I'd let you know if you didn't the way, thanks for your effort here, I've never learned so much, and been so excited about photography, than since I first read you blog/site here.

July 16, 2008 10:53 PM  
Blogger Nick O'Donnell - 808 STUDIOS said...

David, another great post. I've been reading your blog from nearly day one and you have inspired me to create one of my own, the site is It is a community driven fundraiser that revolves around portraits and the stories behind them - All with the goal of changing the world.
Best part is the portrait lighting is all Strobist!

July 17, 2008 12:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He must also be using flags to prevent flare.

Craig Murphy

July 17, 2008 10:09 AM  
Blogger Daron said...

Wow, great post, lots of gret information!!!

July 17, 2008 10:28 PM  
Blogger JLGPHOTO said...

Awesome post as usual. Strobist is a mine of information and inspiration. The post inspired me to try it out at a recent shoot:
It's probably the best football player lighting ever. I used 4 lights. -JLG

July 19, 2008 12:23 AM  
Anonymous Ray said...

Great. Now I have to dig out ALL my lights..

Good information, thanks.

July 19, 2008 10:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would say in my opinion this is by FAR the best sports photo I've ever seen. A big help thank you!

July 20, 2008 4:56 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

Really interesting piece with loads of genuinely useful information. I preferred the initial pre PS image though, the final image was just a little bit too cartoonish and IMHO lost a little of its 'menace' as a result.

July 20, 2008 11:30 PM  
Anonymous dave wright photo said...

the strobist alternative would be to make an arch out of florescent tubes, flag it with cinefoil, and use a gelled speedlight or two into umbrellas to illuminate the front.

no need for beauty dishes or grid spots or fancy anything like that, a flagged florescent tube would give very similar light - a narrow strip of light around the edge.

and you'd only need what, 5 of those 4' fluorescents? that'd be cheaper all together than his beauty dish cost alone.

dave wright

July 21, 2008 4:18 AM  
Anonymous Mark said...

Great article. I really like the way this guy approaches lighting as an aesthetic rather than technical process; textures and tones rather than specific bits of kit.

Yousuf Karsh was a master of this highly built up type of lighting, albeit in a different style and using tungsten rather than strobe.

This image is also a little reminiscent of Arnold Newman's brilliant portrait of Hitler's favourite industrialist, Alfred Krupp. (see

July 22, 2008 4:01 AM  
Blogger LetsEatLunch said...

that is pretty sweet but rembraint still got that feller, rebrant is a beast that most people fail to realize (and cant realize).

August 08, 2008 4:51 AM  

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